Freedom of Action: A Brief Illumination on the Nature of Artistic Activism through Performing Arts in Modern Iran
Freedom of Action: A Brief Illumination on the Nature of Artistic Activism through Performing Arts in Modern Iran
In 2006 I was the director and playwright of a performance “Always by your side…” performed in six different busy public spaces in Tehran, the Capital of Iran. At that time, the Iranian parliamentary committee had just approved in the first reading a bill to allow men to take a second wife. Almost six months ago, in response to the first signs of the state’s willingness to pass this law in the parliament, our theatre collective started performing this piece. As young activists, we showed up in the streets under the cover of a mixed group of film crew and cast, pretending to shoot a film for the Iranian state-controlled media organization (IRIB). I chose a mix of invisible and forum theatre to attract and encourage potential participants from the audience while keeping them aware of the fact that they were being watched both by other people (witnesses) and by Big Brother. On a cold afternoon in winter 2006, curious spectators gathered around us in silence — in response to our plea to keep the scenery quiet for shooting — in front of the Tehran city theatre. After repetitious long-takes which revealed our scripted core story, our supporting actress (protagonist) refused to perform in a scene where she was supposed to obey her husband after catching him red-handed on a date with his second wife. She announced to our audience her objection to representing an oppressed obedient spouse. To solve the dilemma, spectators were invited to either perform as the protagonist or propose personal and legal solutions to help the first wife claim her right in this marital relationship. Just like our previous experiences with the same performance, a dynamic and sensational dialogue started among spect-actors . Soon a public sphere formed and plurality gave birth to political activism. The audience started sharing their points of view on state politics in the public space. Thus, a collective formed, and besides criticizing a totalitarian system, people actively gave suggestions for just and effective policies.
After two hours of performing, debating, and sharing knowledge, we were obliged by the security forces to leave the venue. However, participants were still occupying the space in small groups, discussing the issue of polygamy. We achieved our goal: to revitalize free dialogue in a pluralistic atmosphere and to form a public sphere through performance art. We left with the hope that our performance’s outcome would eventually link “politics of people” with “politics of state.”
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt defines action as one of the fundamental categories of the human condition. The basics of action are natality and freedom. By using the word “natality” she points out that one is born in the political, and she sees freedom as the capacity to engage in unexpected actions . In addition, when people get together and form a political community, they are empowered. The space where such a gathering occurs is the “public sphere” where one could gain the right of appearance and the power of making politics. Arendt defines this politics as “politics of people.” If this politics links with the “politics of state,” then people are no longer merely subjects of politics. More importantly, citizens can gain political agency not only through direct political action but also through debates in the public sphere. This was exactly what we were performing for: to create a safe common space for a collective public activity. It was an attempt to create a space outside of the control zone, where freedom of action is real and effective and participants could remain safe from judgment and punishment by the state despite their discrepancy. As a theater maker and activist, I believe that a performance space can provide its audience with a free space for speech, creativity, and plurality. These are not only basic needs for artistic creation but also, as Hannah Arendt argues, necessary conditions for political action. By speaking, an actor can elaborate on the notion of one’s action while the speech confirms the distinctness of the actor. Speech can also connect actors to each other, who can thus act in concert to generate power.
In less than an hour news hit us: two female participants—feminist activists who were among our spect-actors—were arrested as soon as we left. Such consequences were not unpredictable since that interim public sphere was a fragile bubble situated in the midst of a surveillance state. We were aware that public performances, as an artistic activist movement, would not be approved and could be considered officious to the state. Street theatre and outdoor performing art activities are licensed by the state only if they are tutoring devices and propaganda tools in line with state politics.
Reviewing Iran’s history of performing arts and tracing the historical consequences of performative action in public space as a civil and political act could help us understand the predictability of the above-mentioned consequences. One can find many temporary moments when people gathered freely together in both public and private realms, and many of those could be analyzed “as performances” in the history of modern Iran . However, this paper will focus on public events that are labeled by their creators as theatre or performance art. Those events formed a public sphere through action in order to put the state in touch with the needs of the society. Both the general publics’ and activists’ notions of this performing art style have changed over time. In Iran, performing art in public spaces can even act against its objective and origin of activism.
Iran has an ancient tradition of performing arts. In the late nineteenth century, Ruhowzi and Siah-bazi were important components of Iranian popular culture . Indigenous plays and improvisational comedies were also part of traditional Iranian celebrations and wedding ceremonies. However, their main concern had never been to gather a group of people in order to express their free opinions; rather, they intended to entertain a previously arranged collective of relatives and acquaintances in the yard or garden of the house where the celebration was held. This changed at the beginning of the twentieth century when Iran was on the verge of accepting new changes toward modernization. Different groups of society including merchants, Islamic clerics, shopkeepers, and elites fought for these changes. Between 1905 and 1906, conflicts in the Qajar monarchy  and the constitutional revolution not only led to the establishment of a parliament but also marked the beginning of the modern era in Iran. In particular, the revolution brought citizens’ debates on politics to the public space. Although they did not use the streets as protest sites, a holy shrine and two mosques — both sacred public spaces — were occupied by sit-down strike demonstrations. When the state forces invaded these sanctuaries, the British Embassy in Tehran gave shelter to protesters on the grounds of the embassy. For 21 days, the private property of the embassy was transformed into a “public sphere” by the actions of more than 15 thousand strikers. Every guild pitched its own tent, giving lectures and sermons which produced a draft list of their inquiries. Some teachers performed short pieces about freedom in front of their tent. A quasi-school for political knowledge was established and performances were everywhere. The strike continued till the king signed the constitution. Through performative gestures, people discovered their power for political action in a public sphere.
At the beginning of the constitutional movement, constitutionalists and reform supporters used to gather in private houses. With increasing supporters and social popularity, official clubs formed. Private parks opened their doors to public debate and action. Open invitations for joining these public gatherings in parks were announced in newspapers . Several announcements of ticket sales and charity events were published in Iran-i Naw, an intellectual newspaper that also highly supported women activists . In most events, the program of the day contained one or two performing pieces such as acrobatics or theatre pieces on ethics by Armenian playwrights. Everyone had the right to speak in these meetings and the topic of the theatre pieces was connected to the keynote speech .
Public speeches reveal and certify our differences, and actions initiate debates. In these moments, politics arise, and this happens not in isolated actions but when a plurality of individuals gather in a public space. Among these efforts, Iranian women activists, a group of distinguished activists and an emerging political power, created conferences and played in parks for female audiences. On April 22, 1910, the Iranian Women’s Society  held their very first public theatre by women for a female audience in Atabak Park. The gathering was a huge success as the attendees were significant in number and diversity. Three hundred tickets were sold and five hundred women came to watch the play. Besides members of the Society, every audience member could give a speech before or after the play. The four hundred Toman income of its ticket sales went towards women’s literacy and health charities .
This public performance about women’s rights formed a public sphere, and activists hoped to communicate to the state their thoughts on women’s rights to equality and literacy. Unfortunately, their speech was never recognized by any effective legislator division of Iran’s political power structure. Under Qajars, power was in the hands of courtiers, tribal leaders, Muslim religious clerics, landlords, and great merchants. These different sections of power had devotees among commoners, who would form a militia force when necessary. In particular, notable Muslim clerics were pillars of power in the political, social, and economic realms. The clerics excommunicated women’s presence at public events of performing arts by instigating a fear among fundamentalist devotees that these theaters and gatherings promoted opposition to the veil and by giving them the authorization to attack any publicly announced female performances, indoor or outdoor. In the meantime, Qajar state police arrested women activists to show their support for Islamic regulations.
Around the same time, modernity pervaded the court. Several trips to Europe gave Qajar kings the chance to watch theaters and operas, which inspired them to build similar institutions. In 1851, the first official theatre hall was built in Dar al-Fonun, the country’s first secular high school. However, this place was not public and was only open to male court members, teachers, and students. In 1873, Naser al-Din Shah—the first modern monarch of Iran who was in power for fifty years—came back from his first voyage to Europe and gave orders to build a public theatre (Tekyeh-dowlat) similar to the Royal Albert Hall which he had visited. This venue was devoted to Tazieh passion plays . In 1925, Reza Khan, a former Brigadier-General of the Persian Cossack, deposed the Qajar dynasty and declared himself Reza Shah the first monarch of the Pahlavi dynasty. Pahlavi’s court found theatre an effective tool to develop nationalism and strengthen the idea of a nation-state. Therefore, the king approved the import of modern theatre to Iran and invited Russian and Armenian theatre groups. As the court’s interest in indoor theatre increased, performing art found a safe haven for continuing its life. However, its potential for action in public space and forming a public sphere was gradually neglected.
The 1940s were years of invasion and unexpected changes for Iranians. World War II had a ravaging effect on Iran. Despite the fact that in World War II Iran claimed to be a neutral country, the Allies invaded Iran. On September 16, 1941, Reza Shah was abdicated and replaced by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, his son. The change of monarchy, the subjugation of religious rituals, the Second World War invasion, and the famine made it impossible and unnecessary to continue practicing theater in open public spaces. It was only in 1950, a few years before the 1953 coup d’état, that performing arts found a chance to come back to public venues. At that time, a democratic state was just established by Mohammad Mosaddegh the prime minister, and the monarchy resumed the project of modernization in the capital and major cities. Downtown Tehran was transformed around the parliament building and a long westernized street called Lalehzar. Lalehzar gradually developed into a place for theatre halls and theatre collectives active in opposing political parties. Oppositions to government policies took the form not only of activities and opposition rallies held in these places but also of staged plays containing political criticism.
Unfortunately, this democratic state didn’t last long. The United States, Great Britain, and Iranian Shiite-clerics orchestrated the 1953 coup d’état to overthrow the prime minister and the democratic state. The consequent plunder burned and eventually banned theatre halls and companies, mainly located on Lalehzar Street . The new authoritarian state decided to change this place’s identity from a public realm for expressing political views through performing arts to a venue confined to showing entertainment and commercial theatre. The main goal was to change the citizens’ perception and experience of a theatrical event and space from intellectual and political to recreational. The state thus created and promoted a cabaret atmosphere, where dancers replaced actors and politically engaged elites gave their place to an audience who only longed for a few hours of heavy drinks and ignorance while singing along with Moulin-rouge alike singers and dancers. Performing art was indeed brought to public spaces other than the theatre halls, yet it was limited to indoor dance stages of cafés and cabarets. These places of forgetting and crapulence could hardly be transformed into a public sphere. A lampoon of sexual life was the only major topic among the crowd of the cabarets. The speech and argument among these individuals no longer concerned public interest.
It took more than 20 years for theatre to find its way back to a public space that is neither a theatre hall nor a dance stage. In 1967, Queen Farah founded an art festival in Shiraz to showcase the 2500 years of Iran’s royalty and its rich culture in music and performing arts for both local and global audiences. Her motivation was to “nurture the arts, pay tribute to the nation’s traditional arts and raise cultural standards in Iran” and furthermore to “introduce foreign artists to Iran, and acquaint the Iranian public with the latest creative developments of other countries .” Many performances, including pieces by Maurice Béjart, Peter Brook, and Robert Wilson, were performed in outdoor spaces (mountains, ruins of Persepolis, etc), granting access to the masses.
During the 12 years of the Shiraz Art Festival, performances continued marching into public arenas. In 1976, a Hungarian theatre named “Pig, Child, Fire” was performed in an empty shop on Ferdowsi Street in Shiraz. Scenes were staged both on the street and behind the storefront window, which formed on-site a group of intended (theater audience) and unintended audience (passers-by). In the middle of the production, a violent sex scene was performed, which brought up quick anger among the audience, and the Hungarian actors and actresses ran out of the agitated crowd with the help of some audiences . The reaction suggests that a public sphere where citizens met one another, exchanged their opinions, and debated their differences was formed, and that it was a common space where politics of people and action could emerge. The violent outcome of this particular event was a result of a suppressed and disappointed society. While collaborations were happening among national and international artists in an extremely well-financed event budgeted by the state, the majority of the nation was suffering from wealth inequality. While the authoritarian government allocated public venues and financial sources to progressive western art, domestic political expression through performing arts was suppressed institutionally. The domestic discourse between the state and common people on the making of policies was interrupted because the authoritarian politics of the regime legitimized surveillance, repression, and censorship. According to Arendt in The Human Condition, the restriction or elimination of the public sphere of action and speech in favor of the private world of introspection and the private pursuit of economic interests results in elite domination and the manipulation of public opinion. In Iran’s case, limiting citizens’ freedom of political speech increased the power of the Islamic clerical faction who were granted hundreds of tribunes in mosques and religious ceremonies.
The second Pahlavi Mohammadreza Shah’s mission was to modernize and industrialize the country. Iran was on the brink of a new beginning, and people were invited to take an active part in the state-oriented social and political scene. However, this state-forced natality did not necessarily give birth to the state-expected kind of politically capable citizen. Since the “politics of people” and “politics of state” were extremely contradictory, performing in public space became a potential threat to the monarchy, which gave surveillance forces an excuse to ask the king to constrain the festival. The turmoil caused by the above-mentioned site-specific theater brought about strict resistance and criticism from religious leaders and communist theatre activists. Khomeini—the future religious leader of Iran—ruled on the closure of this “sinister” festival during a sermon in Najaf . The Communist party’s aversion to these events was evident in the words of Said Soltanpour, a secular leftist theatre director. Soltanpour attacked the festival for its bourgeois formalism and action against committed domestic theatre .
Despite the monarch’s will to dominate the nation under one party, there exist three groups of opposition, the Communist party led by the Tudeh party, the Muslim fundamentalist clerics led by Khomeini, and the nationalists led by the later exiled Mosadeqh. In the summer of 1978, massive demonstrations were organized by a coalition of activists from the secular, nationalist, and fundamentalist oppositions in order to overthrow the monarchy, and sympathizers of the three opposition groups were on the streets. The plurality of these protest movements and the capability of the citizens to go beyond state politics and initiate something new transformed the public space into a public sphere. Political performative events were staged in people’s everyday life, and those who experienced them became active participants in protesting collectives. In winter 1979, the Iranian Revolution succeeded and summoned its plural forces under the banner of its religious leaders. An Islamic republic government was established. By that time, performative events in public spaces had become a significant part of social life such that not only did people’s assembly in public inevitably generate actions but theatre activists also performed pieces on the streets inspired by “theater of the oppressed” and its view on audience interaction. In May 1979, Said Soltanpour decided to perform “Abbas Aqha- Kargar e Iran National” by “an itinerant troupe of documentary theatre” in parks and quarters—as the brochure claimed—but it was actually staged only on a university campus . The performance usually extended to the streets of the neighborhood and ended with a demonstration. Abbas is a real person: he is a poor worker who is desperate and dissatisfied with unfair labor conditions in the Iran-National Factory. In order to perform an interactive theatre about the miserable life of Abbas and his efforts to change, a group of actors and a joker (the director himself) used irony to encourage audience participation. Actual documents, voice recordings, films, and magazine clippings from Abbas’s everyday life were used as performing materials.
4000 audiences from different casts of society watched the performance, yet a group of fundamentalists who claimed to be labor activists raided the event. Female members of the performing group were beaten, male performers were arrested, and the Muslim labor Association threatened Abbas Aqha with death. The theatre was permanently banned. Thereafter, every public art event or performance had to obtain official permission from a newly founded governmental body named the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance which oversees all cultural productions. In just one year, the revolutionary leftists were eliminated from the political and social activist scene. Soltanpour was never given a chance to perform in public space again. In 1981, he was arrested in his last performance, his wedding ceremony, and ultimately executed.
The basics of action defined by Arendt — natality and freedom — are not sufficient for a positive freedom, as Richard J. Bernstein reminds us:
“Liberation from oppressors may be a necessary condition for freedom, but it is never a sufficient condition for the achievement of positive public freedom. The overthrow of tyrants, dictators, and totalitarian leaders does not by itself bring about positive tangible freedom. This is a bitter lesson that must be learned over and over again.” 
In the years following the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, mass presence of people on the streets was only possible as propaganda demonstrations or religious ceremonies. One could remember the announcement written in almost every public space (cafe, barbershop, doctor’s waiting room, offices, etc): “No Political Discussion.” Public debates were obliged to stage a unity between the official policies of the state and the opinions of the individuals and the latter’s conformity to the former.
In 1980, the war between Iran and Iraq dominated streets, public arenas, public events, and state debates. As the cities were under brutal bombings and recruitment lines were in every district, activism through performing arts was almost impossible. Instead, groups of young volunteers were organized by mosques or governmental cultural organizations to form theatre caravans and go to the front line. These amateur groups performed satire pieces open-air behind frontline hills in order to strengthen the morale and propagate nationalism, the sanctity of martyrdom, and Islamic values among soldiers .
By the end of the war in 1988, members of these theatre groups became the main promoters of the street-theatre scene. In 1994, they established the Street Theatre Association. Street theatre became a habitual part of theatre festivals and religious occasions under strict state supervision. Performance in public spaces was used as an effective tool to articulate state policies, endorsed values, and ideological instigation. In other words, in a performance in a public realm with supposedly diverse and accidental spectators, everything was expected to be seen only from one predetermined point of view and not from the perspective of any spectator who was present. In this case, performance art and street theatre were evidently acting against their activist root.
Arendt characterizes power as people’s action in plurality only when people are free to speak,
where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities .
When the subject of the performance no longer connects with the audience, and when their civil right to freedom of choice is disregarded, speech and argument would be absent from the collective of people. Gradually, a free public is eliminated from the Iranian citizens’ real social space. Since its presence is essential to perform action effectively, action can no longer happen through those official performing art activities. Without the presence of a public sphere, not only is the debate between the state and people interrupted, but citizens are also incapable of disclosing who they are, and the tendency of a totalitarian state to silence individuals puts their political and social agency in danger. As mentioned in the case of “Always by your side . . .”, our effort to make a safe and free space for citizens’ action through an interactive performance was regarded as an unsought objection that might endanger the dictated politics. Meanwhile, performing art is no longer able to guarantee a safe stage for its participants. In the end, the state confronts the public sphere instead of communicating with it.
Therefore, a public sphere can only be formed through unexpected and impulsive snap performances by common activists and rarely by artist activists who need an official license. However, as we have experienced in “Always by your side. . .”, citizens need to be present in a collective for a duration of time to communicate, debate, establish a community, and develop a politics of people. The short and sudden nature of rapid performative actions is not favorable and requires alternative methods for a time extension, which is probable through numerous re-presentations. Considering the lack of freedom, plurality, and speech, the ability to produce a performance that has the capacity for re-presentation seems crucial for activism. This may be the reason why Iranian citizens would encounter repetitious performances with the same pattern by various amateur performers in multitudinous public venues. Meanwhile, public space is digitally extended through social media, which gives the citizens another online and virtual life. Iranian artist activists also felt the urge to involve in their actions these sites of public life which offer safety and freedom . These repetitions, multiplications, and involvements are wise choices that extend the performance’s life and expand the community.
Azadeh Ganjeh—born in 1983 in Tehran, Iran—is a playwright, performance artist, and theatre director. After receiving her BA in Civil Engineering, she earned an M.A. in theater directing from Tehran Art University and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bern University. She is now an Assistant Professor at the school of performing arts at the University of Tehran. Her research interest focuses on Cultural Mobility theory, theories of the public sphere, Theatre for Development and Democracy, Activism in Art and Digital Theatre, and social theatre. Motivated by her scholarly passion, she had won national and international prizes for her site-specific and immersive theatre productions.
 In Forum Theatre (also known as ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’), the actors perform a play with a scripted core (called “core story”), in which an oppression relevant to the audience is played out. The subject matter will usually be something of immediate importance to the audience, often based on a shared life experience. A central character (protagonist) encounters a form of oppression or obstacle that s/he is unable to overcome. At this point, the actors begin the performance from its beginning again. During this re-performing members of the audience can call out “Stop” and take to the stage and suggest alternative options for how the protagonist could have acted. In this way, the event can be used to rehearse for an imminent occasion, or to uncover and analyze alternatives in any situation, past, present, or future. The actors explore the results of these choices with the audience who are named spect-actors by Augusto Boal because they are creating and performing a theatrical debate, in which experiences and ideas are rehearsed and shared.
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 177-178.
 As Richard Schechner mentions in Performance Studies, any and all of the activities of human life can be studied “as” performance but something “is” a performance only when historical and social context, convention, usage, and tradition say it is.
 Ruhowzi is a kind of commedia dell’arte social satire with several typical characters, including Siyah-baz who wears a red turban and has a black-painted face. Its literal translation, “over the pool”, stresses the architecture of its stage, which was typically on a board placed over a courtyard pond. Actors used comic dance, music, and song in their rapid verbal humor at weddings and family feasts. The play sometimes involved verbal exchanges with the guests.
 Qajar is an Iranian royal dynasty of Turkic origin, ruling over Iran from 1789 to 1925.
 The term “park” was firstly used during the Qajar dynasty in reference to vast private green spaces with European designs. Tehran’s development was significantly sped up during the reign of the fourth king of the Qajar dynasty, king Naser-al-din Shah. At that time, Iranian architecture and urbanism were influenced by European culture. It is notable that these privately owned parks were not considered public spaces. Parks had high walls and boundaries that separated the inner and outer spaces. Gradually the owners opened the parks for invitational events and ceremonies.
 Play and garden party, 1911, Iran-i naw — Women in the city and miscellaneous news Collection. Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran Digital Archive, Middle Eastern Division, Widener Library, Harvard Library. [Accessed March 06, 2021].
 Janet Afary, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution 1906-1911 (New York: Columbia University Press,1996), p.195.
 Anjoman-e- Khavatin-e- Irani
 The Iranian Toman is the official currency of Iran in the form of banknotes.
 Ta’zieh, primarily known from the Persian tradition, is a Shi’ite Muslim Passion Play that reenacts the tragic death of Hussein (the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s grandson) and his companions in a brutal massacre on the plains of Karbala, Iraq in the year 680 AD.
 At the end of the Qajar era and the beginning of the Pahlavi era, Lalehzar was a symbol of modernism and the art of Iran. Many theaters, restaurants, businesses, cabarets, dish-sellers, dressmakers, cinemas, and famous shops of Iran were located on this street.
 Experts from Festival catalogue 1967 cited by Mahasti Afshar in Iran Namag, Volume 4, Number 2 (Summer 2019), p. 8.
 Squat theatre (1977-1991) was a Hungarian experimental theatre company. The company immigrated to New York City due to political and artistic reasons. The play was a twisted version of the Bible story of King Herod’s attempts to murder the baby Jesus. Squat added a fake narrative about Judas, in which Judas’ mother saved her infant son by seducing the soldier who came to kill him. In addition to the lovemaking of Judas’s mother and the soldier, the scene also included soldiers seizing doll-children from their mothers and smashing them with swords, while fake blood splattered. Retrieved from http://squattheatre.com/shiraz.html [Accessed August 10, 2021]
 Rohollah Khomeini, Al-sahifah al-imam, third volume (Tehran: Daftare Nashre Asar, 1991), pp229-231. Retrieved from http:// www.imam-khomeini.ir/fa/page/210
 Said Soltanpour (1940-1981) wrote a 40-page article in criticism of the cultural and artistic scene in the Pahlavi dynasty. This article is published under the name of “A style of Art, a manifest of Ideology” in Tehran in 1970.
 The documentary performance was held in a sports hall at Tehran Polytechnic University. At the end of each performance, the performers and audience went out of the university campus for a demonstration march. The Islamic association of workers never let them perform in the factory, and they even attacked the group each and every time the event tried to leave the campus.
 Richard J. Bernstein, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), p. 118, LCCN 2018002934 (ebook)
 Interview with Javad Hashemi (September 2014), Mashregh News, http://www.mshrgh.ir/349573 [Accessed April 19, 2021].
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 200.
 Current artistic activism in Iran combines actions and performances on real and virtual sites. The online sphere gives new solutions and new methods of performance emerge from them.